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This is from an email exchange. I was supposed to meet with someone and asked the person how long our (future) meeting would last. The response was "I was thinking we talked for 30 min".

It occurred to me that while I knew the meaning of it, it had been a while since I learned the relevant grammar rule, so I couldn't "justify" the usage of past simple in this sentence. I tried googling, but haven't found anything relevant yet.

My confusion is about using past tense to describe a future event. It sounds like an effort to make it sound more tentative and more polite, perhaps. Something in the spirit of "I'd prefer (it) if you didn't mention this to anyone." but I can't quite pinpoint the relevant grammar here. Or was it just a mistake?

Thanks!

  • You might need to add some more context for this question to be answerable. What is strange to you about the past simple in talked? – snailboat Jan 31 '18 at 20:04
  • done, hope it's clear now – 12345 Jan 31 '18 at 20:17
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I was thinking {something}.

What goes into the {something} slot is called a "content clause".

This particular clause asserts a fact ("we talked...") so it would be a declarative content clause.

This one:

I was thinking, who made this delicious cake?

would be considered an interrogative content clause.

The continuous was thinking simply refers to ongoing activity.

Why would the continuous be used here? Because the thought is not like a flash of lightning, over and done with, but something you hold in your mind for a while.

When we want to express the idea that a thought pops into our head, and maybe sticks around afterwards, we can say it like this:

It occurred to me, the raccoon might have rabies, so maybe I should not get too close to it.

  • Thanks a lot! (I upvoted your answer but my reputation is too low for it to count) – 12345 Jan 31 '18 at 19:33
  • I re-read your answer and checked the wiki for declarative content clause, and I have a follow-up question. The person wasn't talking about a fact but rather about a plan in the future, (i.e., in the previous email, I asked how long our meeting was going to last and this was the response). So the purpose was to make it sound more tentative and thus friendlier. (Am I right here?) How do you call this type of declarative content clause? – 12345 Jan 31 '18 at 19:43
  • Your comment is not quite clear to me. Are you saying that you wish to suggest to someone that the two of you should set some time aside for a conversation which will last approximately 30 minutes? If so: I was thinking, we could talk for 30 minutes or so... You wouldn't use the past tense talked if you're making a suggestion about a future possibility. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 31 '18 at 20:04
  • I asked another person how long our meeting would last. The person said “I was thinking we talked for 30 min”. Normally I would expect the response to be “I was thinking we could talk for 30 min”, like you suggested. But then I thought that perhaps the logic is similar to that of the sentence “I’d prefer if you didn’t tell this to anyone”, i.e., using the past tense for emphasis/ making it sound more tentative,etc. Or was that just mistake on the other person’s part and I am overthinking this? – 12345 Jan 31 '18 at 20:10
  • The simple past talked in I thought we talked for 30 minutes does not have the meaning "we could talk" or "we might talk". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 31 '18 at 20:17

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